Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Historic Cuban Sandwich

There are many pleasant things about living around the Tampa Bay area of Florida.  The sunny warm weather, award winning beaches, an abundance of fresh and saltwater fishing, professional sports teams, and, great places to eat all make the Tampa area a special place.
Tampa has another distinction too, and, a very delicious one.  It is the disputed home of the Cuban sandwich (the "Cubano"). I use the word, “disputed,” because at one time or another Havana, Key West, and even Miami have all claimed to be the birthplace of the sandwich.  And, while it is probably true that some form of a “mixto” originated in Cuba, the sandwich, in its present composition, most certainly came about in Tampa’s Ybor City during the late 1800’s.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Ybor City was the “Cigar Capital of the World.”  Cuban workers in the cigar factories in both Ybor City and West Tampa produced high quality hand-rolled cigars, reputedly, the finest in the world.  The workers needed something portable to take to work for lunch, and, that “something” was the Cuban sandwich.

For what it’s worth, a National Public Radio poll more or less determined that Tampa is, in fact, where most people believe the present day sandwich came together.  And, the Tampa City Council has officially declared the tasty sandwich the “Historic Tampa Cuban Sandwich.”   

So, what is it about the Cuban sandwich which pits communities against each other for bragging rights?  That question brings about even more controversy, because there is even disagreement among many as to what ingredients constitute a “real” Cuban.  Most would agree that a true Cuban consists of pork, sweet ham, Swiss cheese, mustard, and pickles, and, in the case of Tampa Cuban sandwiches, Genoa salami.  This last ingredient came about in deference to the sizable Italian community living in and around Ybor City during those early days when the cigar was king.  The sandwich is only made with Cuban bread.

Good bread can make or break any sandwich, and, in my opinion, Cuban bread makes this sandwich as well.  Cuban bread is made with lard, and, the baked loaf is usually 36 inches long.  The most well-known and respected Tampa baker of Cuban bread is La Segunda Central Bakery, which has been in operation since the early days of the 20th century. La Segunda bakers shape the dough into loaves, and, as has been done from the bakery’s beginning, place a palmetto leaf on top of each loaf prior to baking.  This not only gives the bread a signature palm leaf split, but, more importantly, holds in the moisture while the bread is baking.  This is important, as it helps give the bread its flaky exterior and its moist chewy interior.  Those who consider themselves true artisans of the sandwich would never consider using bread that had not been baked the same day.  Additionally, Cubans can be served either room temperature, or, hot-pressed in a press called a plancha.

I’ve had the pleasure of eating Cuban sandwiches in many places, including, non-traditional places like Texas.  I had my first Cuban sandwich a very long time ago in Tampa’s own, Hugo’s Spanish Restaurant, one very special place that knows a thing or two about perfecting the art of a Cubano.  And, ever since, I have considered the sandwich to be one of my favorite foods.  There is no reason to attempt to judge the best Tampa Cuban sandwich or the best Tampa restaurants making the sandwich, as, most all are very good.  I’ve enjoyed them in high-end eating establishments, trailers, and in gas station/convenience stores.  And, while some may have seemed better than others; it’s probably just a personal preference on my part.  There have been a few times when I’ve had less than a respectable Cuban sandwich, but never in the Tampa area.  In those cases, it was because someone went a little heavy when pressing the sandwich.  In my opinion, they literally “squeezed the life” out of it.  A pressed sandwich should be gently pressed, not crushed.

The Cuban sandwich is so popular around Tampa that you could keep quite busy trying to visit all the places that sell them.  The other day I was hungry for a Cuban, so I decided to revisit a place which is a past winner of “The All Tampa Cuban Sandwich Contest.”  The Cuban Sandwich Shop, located on N. Florida Avenue, in the block between W. Seneca and W. Bougainvillea, is a family run business that started selling Cubans in 1975.  It’s not fancy, often crowded, but the food is very good.  And it’s not just the Cuban sandwiches which are good either.  Many regulars who visit the shop order the Spanish Bean soup, which in addition to the garbanzo beans, contains ham, chorizo sausage, and potatoes in a delightful saffron flavored soup base. 

The sandwich which gives the shop its namesake has sweet ham, Cuban style pork, Genoa salami, Swiss cheese, pickles, mustard, and mayonnaise all stuffed inside delicious Cuban bread.  It can either be pressed or not, and, for those who want it, the sandwich can be served with lettuce and tomato.  For an additional charge, you can order a “Special Cuban,” which contains an extra portion of sweet ham.

As it was the noon hour when I arrived, the shop was packed with people.  There is no priority seating, so, you must take matters into your own hands to be seated.  Luckily I spotted a table along the back wall which had just been vacated, and, I quickly made my move.  Negotiating between tables of senior citizens eating two dollar cups of Spanish Bean soup, Tampa paramedics gorging themselves on Cubans, and, middle aged women enjoying Ropa Vieja, I took my seat and ordered a “Special Cuban” with tall glass of unsweetened ice tea.  It was a great sandwich, a good lunch, and, you can be sure I will do it again.

In the end, I suppose, it really does not matter where the sandwich came from originally.  The important thing is that it came from somewhere.  I love Cuban sandwiches, and, I can honestly say that of all the things in life which make life pleasant, a Cuban sandwich is certainly one of them. Ana Maria Polo, the television show host of Telemundo’s “Caso Cerrado,” also thinks very highly of the sandwich it seems.  She reportedly said, “Let me tell you something: Sometimes a Cuban sandwich and an ice-cold beer can be better than sex.”  Now, I like the sandwich, I like it a lot, but, I’m not prepared to go that far.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

A Marine From Tampa Bay Comes Home For Mother’s Day

Lance Cpl. Freeman Comes Home

Ronald “Dougie” Freeman, a violin player and a graduate of Plant City High School, came back home this past week just in time for Mother’s Day.  Unfortunately, it was not the homecoming anyone would have imagined only a month ago, nor the homecoming anybody really wanted.
Since September 2001, Mother’s Day celebrations in many homes across this country have been darkened by the loss of a family member serving in the military.  As of this Mother’s Day in 2011, there have been 4,452 members of our armed forces who have lost their lives in Iraq, including 194 from the State of Florida.  In addition, another 1,572 have died in Afghanistan, including 101 from Florida.  Each loss represents a personal family tragedy.
Freeman joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 2008, and had been in Afghanistan just three weeks, when his life was cut short at the young age of 25.  Although his own mother had passed away several years ago, he left behind a wife, a young daughter, and a recently born son he never got to see.

Patriot Guard Riders

Like other members of the armed forces who have lost their lives and once called Florida’s Gulf Coast home, Lance Corporal Freeman’s body was returned to MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa on an Angel Flight.  On May 4, 2011, in a procession which has become all too familiar along Tampa’s scenic Bayshore Boulevard, the hearse carrying Freeman was escorted by members of his immediate family, friends, representatives of the military, deputies of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, and Patriot Guard Riders.  This traditional route along Bayshore is always lined with many patriotic citizens, who wish to pay their respects to these fallen heroes, and such was indeed the case for Lance Corporal Freeman.
We owe a lot to our fallen warriors.  While the rest of us continue to enjoy our daily lives, these men and women have made the ultimate sacrifice to make that enjoyment possible.  Whatever our political views on the current conflicts may be, we should all agree that the sacrifices made by these fallen heroes, as well as by the current members of our armed forces serving around the globe this year on Mother’s Day, deserve our sincere respect and heartfelt thanks for all they’ve done for us.
The most recent sacrifices being made by our armed forces are neither new nor unique to the American experience.  Since this country’s founding, every generation has sacrificed its citizens in military excursions both large and small.  But, that doesn’t make the sacrifices being made today by the military any less painful to their families, or to this nation.
It is my hope, on this special day we’ve set aside to honor our mothers, that we can look ahead to a Mother’s Day in the not too distant future, and see a Bayshore Boulevard where the only procession visible, is the procession of joggers running along the water’s edge.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Sisters Pursuing The American Dream One Cupcake At A Time

Kathy Burke and Mary K. Oney

The current economic trouble the United States is experiencing has brought a gloomy and pessimistic mood to many of its citizens.  Many people are without jobs and are clearly hurting.  As some countries around the world appear to be growing and thriving, a lot of Americans seem to have given up, convinced that this country’s best days are behind it.
Observing the current negative attitude among many folks these days, it’s always nice to meet people that share a much different view.  Entrepreneurs are the ones who initially built, and have historically sustained, a strong economy for the United States.  They are in a class by themselves.  They see a world of possibilities, even in troubled times.  By nature and by temperament, they are proud, positive, energetic, and enthusiastic.  They believe in themselves, and what they can achieve.  And, most important of all, they never give up.  I found two living examples of this recently at the Oldsmar Flea Market.
Mary K. Oney and Kathy Burke are sisters.  Originally from Ohio, they learned a lot about life from their great-grandmother, Ida Mae, including the love of baking.  As adults, Mary and Kathy pursued their own separate lives and careers, as most siblings do.  Mary, after moving to Florida, worked for the City of Dunedin.   Kathy spent her career working in a factory in Ohio.  But through the years, these two sisters never forgot about Ida Mae, each other, or their love of baking.  And, they are now reunited with each other as bakers, entrepreneurs, and small business owners. 
After Mary left her job with the City of Dunedin, she wanted to fulfill her dream.  That dream was attending the culinary arts program at The Art Institute of Tampa, with a focus on baking and pastry.  Like most entrepreneurs, nothing could get between Mary and her dream, and she successfully completed a one year program to become a pastry chef.  One of her proud accomplishments as she was completing her studies at the institute was creating a cookie tree several feet high.  Mary showed me a photograph of the cookie tree she made.  It was impressive to look at, and I’m quite sure tasted even better. 
Kathy was still back in Ohio when Mary was undergoing her transition from city employee to baker. Kathy, like her sister, always liked to bake, and the delicious results of her baking was appreciated by everyone who knew her in Ohio, friends and family alike.  One night, Kathy said, “I had a dream about baking with Mary,” and she soon relocated to Florida to join her sister.
The two began selling cupcakes under the name, “Sweet Ida Mae’s,” at the Fresh Market at Seminole Mall, as a respectful tribute to their great-grandmother.  But, early last fall, they decided to move to the Oldsmar Flea Market, a flea market which bills itself as “The Mightiest In The South.”  When they opened their booth in Oldsmar, they initially sold cupcakes, cookies, chocolates, candy, barrel bread, and popcorn.  Recently, however, because of certain restrictions, they have been informed that they can only sell a more limited number of items.  As a result, Mary and Kathy now focus almost exclusively on their own baked cupcakes, and the barrel bread which is baked by Giovanni’s Bakery in Largo.  Having to cut back on what they can sell might have devastated the spirit of some people, but not these two ladies.  And, while they are a little disappointed, it only makes them more determined to succeed.
Despite this recent setback, the sisters have big plans for the future.  One of their goals is to open a storefront bakery in Safety Harbor.  Mary said that they eventually want to get to a point where they can “employ people.”  She believes that the economy will only begin to recover when small business owners flourish again and start hiring.  She said, “I want to bake my own bread, hire drivers, and help the economy.”  Her sister Kathy couldn’t agree more.
In addition to their booth at the flea market, and a small but growing catering business for weddings and the like, Mary and Kathy have other plans.  They recently went to Ohio to purchase an old, retired, bomb squad truck which they intend to refurbish into a mobile food vehicle once they can afford to do so.  The thought of these two energetic and determined women driving down I-75 in a bomb squad truck would bring a smile to your face if you knew them. 
The cupcakes Mary and Kathy bake are delightful works of art. Of course, they are both outstanding bakers, and, they are both very creative.  In addition to the colorful and artistic frosting designs topping their cupcakes, they have also created decorative bags and containers in which they often sell their product. They have even made a brightly decorated cash box in which to store the day’s income.  Their aprons, and hats, are all their own design and creation.  In short, they do it all.
As with all entrepreneurs, the sisters are always focused on ways to improve the status quo.  One of the problems with transporting bakery items topped with frosting in Florida is that the extreme heat tends to melt the frosting.  Mary and Kathy have solved this issue, by developing a frosting which is more resistant to heat.

Looks are one thing, but as someone once said, “the proof is in the eating.”  My observation with most of the cupcakes I’ve eaten in my life is that they are too dry.  As a result, I usually end up eating only the top portion of the cake, just below the frosting, and then I throw the rest away.
The first thing you notice when you open a container of cupcakes baked by Mary and Kathy, is the pleasing aroma.  You instantly realize that these are no ordinary cupcakes.  They have a homemade smell, like something which just came out of the oven.  The cakes are moist, and the frosting is not just a bland and sugary topping, it has a flavor, and it has a substance.  These cupcakes are something very special.  It is little wonder that people keep coming back for more.  One customer said that she had “traveled around the whole world, and have not found a better cupcake.”  There is no way I can pay a better compliment than that, and so, I won't try. But, if you want to purchase some of these cupcakes, or, have a special event for which you need catered baked goods, Mary and Kathy can be reached at the flea market, or, by calling them at 727-726-2305.

An old framed photograph of great-grandmother Ida Mae sits on a shelf in the booth overlooking Mary and Kathy as they sell their cupcakes to both new and repeat customers.  Mary K. Oney, and her sister, Kathy Burke, are passionate about what they do and their enthusiasm and positive energy is unbelievably overwhelming.  Even though times are tough, and they’ve been dealt a setback or two, these two proud bakers are actively pursuing the classic American Dream of building a successful business, and they’re doing it one cupcake at a time.  Ida Mae would indeed be proud.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Soon There Will Be No Reason To Ever Go Back North

It wasn’t all that long ago, if you wanted to eat an authentic pasty in the United States, you had to drive a very long way north to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to get one. Getting up there was a very time consuming ordeal, even if you lived in the southern part of Michigan. 
The pasty is thought to have its origins in the mining communities around Cornwall England.  Miners needed a simple but nutritious food which they could carry into the mines, and so, through time, the pasty was developed.  Eventually, as Cornish miners made their way across the Atlantic to work in the copper mines of Michigan, they brought their knowledge of this portable food with them.  And, it's a good thing for all pasty lovers in North America, both past and present, that they did. 
Immigrant miners from other countries, most notably Finland, made the pasty a part of their own diets, and soon it became a staple in the Michigan mining communities.  The copper mines are now deserted, but the Cornish influence lives on each time a pasty is made and consumed in Michigan’s northern most reaches.
The pasty is a self-contained meal.  It is essentially a pie crust which is wrapped around a combination of meat and vegetables, crimped and sealed around the edge, and then baked.  The filling of a pasty varies depending upon the specific recipe, but most include meat, potato, onion, rutabaga, and salt and pepper.  Sometimes turnips and carrots are added, and meats can include beef or pork, or, a combination of the two.  The pasty is often eaten with ketchup or gravy, but some people eat it without either one.
Since I was a young boy, I’ve visited the Upper Peninsula of Michigan more times than I can count, and I've always bemoaned the long travel time to get there.  But I also knew that at the end of a very long automobile ride, I would be rewarded with many great things to see and do, including, eating a delicious pasty.  And, that always made the long trip worthwhile.
The world is getting smaller, due in large part to technology and engineering, but sometimes it gets smaller because of the vision, hard work, and dedication of entrepreneurs who are not necessarily focused on technology, physics, or mathematics.  One such entrepreneur who has made the world much smaller is a man named Allan Gower.
Ye Olde Miners Yooper Michigan Pasty Shop, owned and operated by Allan Gower, is just like many similar shops found across the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, except for one very important fact.   Mr. Gower’s pasty restaurant is not located in Michigan at all.  It’s located in Zephyrhills, Florida, a city best known for bottled spring water.  And while Allan Gower is originally from Maine, not Michigan, it is interesting to note that Maine’s coast along the Atlantic Ocean looks very similar to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan’s coast along Lake Superior.  Other similarities include cold and snowy winters, and often, very cool summers.  Perhaps these similarities are among the reasons why Mr. Gower appreciates the history of Michigan's pasty so much.  Whatever his reasons, he has perfected pasty making to a fine art.

Allan Gower
 Allan Gower’s day begins early.  He makes two batches of pasties each day, once in the morning and once in the afternoon.  Making and selling over 200 pasties a day in peak season keeps Gower a very busy man indeed.  Florida’s “snowbird” season during the winter is when he is the busiest, and the summer is when he is the slowest, but whatever the season, he keeps serving up delicious pasties day in and day out.  And, if you are eating inside the shop instead of grabbing a take-out order, you’ll enjoy looking at the old photographs of Michigan copper mines which line the walls.  These photographs, along with some mining artifacts, give the place some real character.

The good citizens of Zephyrhills, many of whom originally came from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, provide a loyal local clientele for Gower’s pasty shop.  Many come in weekly to get the food which reminds them of a home up north which they left long ago.  But they are not alone.  Other Michigan transplants, living throughout Florida, also make their way to Zephyrhills every couple of months to buy frozen pasties.  Bringing ice chests in the back of automobiles, trucks, and minivans, they take advantage of the shop’s discount on large frozen pasty orders.  But, there are others who frequent the shop as well.
“Sometimes,” Gower says, “people come in and think I sell something else.”  Apparently, there are some folks, who drop by, because they think they can purchase those other “pasties.” Pronounced differently, but with the same spelling, they are looking to buy those little adhesive nipple coverings worn by some female employees in gentlemen’s clubs.  Most troubling about this, perhaps, is the fact that the sign on the front of the shop clearly indicates that the name of the place is “Ye Olde Miners Yooper Michigan Pasty Shop.” There is certainly nothing wrong, I suppose, with a gentlemen's club employee with the appropriate job title to be looking for a place to buy pasties. But, you have to wonder, at least a little bit, about someone who is looking to buy them from a place called “Ye Olde Miners."

As you would expect, Gower sells the beef pasty with all of the traditional ingredients, but he also sells a non-traditional chicken pasty as well. And, every Friday, he sells vegetable pasties.  On the day I visited, I ordered and enjoyed a beef pasty.  Gower’s pasties are very thick with generous fillings, and I split the difference by eating mine with both gravy and ketchup, and it was delightful.
If you go, Ye Olde Miners Yooper Michigan Pasty Shop is located just a few miles east of Interstate 75 at 35201 State Route 54 in Zephyrhills, Florida.  The shop is open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 11 a.m to 5 p.m on Saturday. 
Allan Gower is a man who has successfully shrunk the distance between Florida and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan without a lot of fancy technology, or, some science fiction time machine.  Without him, there would be many people in Florida who would otherwise have to travel well over a thousand miles back to Michigan to get something very historic, authentic, and, delicious to eat.  It now seems to me, that with the availability of pasties in Zephyrhills, Florida, that soon there will be no reason to ever go back north.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Music Man Under A Straw Hat

Scotty Lee Rexroat has never met me, and probably never will.  Nevertheless, I know him quite well.  This, despite the fact, that if I saw him without a straw hat on his head or a guitar in his hands, I probably would not even recognize him, unless, of course, he was singing.
Musicians, like writers, connect very successfully to others without actually having to meet them.  Musicians do it through music and lyrics, and writers do it through the written word.  In either case, powerful messages can be sent and received even though the sender and receiver have never met.  Artists send messages as well.  Through their carvings, statues, paintings, and, drawings, they communicate to succeeding generations.  Architects, too, send messages through time.  The wonder of the Great Pyraimids of Egypt resonates with all of us thousands of years after they were first designed, just as clearly as the more recent buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Scotty Lee Rexroat is a son of Pinellas County, Florida.  I really don’t have a clue how old he is, although I would guess that he is in his 50’s.  His age wouldn’t actually matter much if it weren’t for what he remembers about things lost.  Scotty Lee Rexroat remembers a Florida that doesn’t exist anymore, and sings about what he remembers through several of his musical styles, including, folk, country, blues, and rock.

Scotty Lee Rexroat

During his performances, through both his music and commentary, he reminds his audience of the numerous negative impacts the citizens of the "Sunshine State" have had upon the natural environment of Florida.  He jokes about how he  now refers to Pinellas County as “Pineless County,” given the widespread destruction of the once prevalent pine forests which covered the peninsula.  Through his songs like, “The Last Florida Waltz,” “Sweet Cracker Girl,” “Pineless County,” and, “She’s A Weeki Wachee Mermaid,” he challenges us to think about the past, and in some cases, the damage done to Florida’s once pristine and pure Gulf Coast.  Unfortunately, what has happened in Florida is neither new, nor unique.

Traditionally, Americans, in their zeal to always move forward, tend to forget about the importance of the past.  As a result, we have trampled upon and destroyed many of  our country's natural and historic treasures. Over time, virgin forests, life-sustaining wetlands, historic buildings, clean water, family-owned orange groves, and Civil War battlefields have all been destroyed under the banner of development and progress.  Sad to say, but progress once gained, is usually final. Scotty Lee’s musical gift to us is important because it causes us to slow down, however briefly, and take stock of what we’ve already lost, and what we continue to lose with each passing day.
In a day and age where it must be extremely difficult for the average person to appreciate a minstrel with a straw hat covered with silly fishing lures collecting tips in a plastic bait bucket; please take this one seriously, because he has an important message about the “price” of so-called “progress.”

Sunday, February 13, 2011

SOS In The Land Of Breakfast

There have got to be more places in Florida to buy a good breakfast than in any other state.  Of course, I have no statistical information to back up that claim, so I guess you’ll just have to take my word for it.  My explanation for why there are so many places to eat breakfast in Florida is quite simple.  The only people who have time to go out in the morning and sit down and have a leisurely breakfast are retired senior citizens and tourists, and Florida has plenty of both.  The rest of us are working, or heading to work, and we just don’t want to get up early enough to make stopping at the local breakfast spot a reality.  The places I’m referring to don’t just serve breakfast in the morning, they serve it all day long.  And while they may also serve lunch and dinner, breakfast is their specialty, and the reason most people visit.  After all, you never know what hour of the day someone will develop an intense hunger for SOS.

SOS stands for “Stuff On a Shingle.”  Well, it doesn’t really.  I’ve politely substituted the original “S” word with the word “stuff.”  My mother reads my writing from time to time, and I’m sure she would not appreciate my use of the original “S” word.  So, in order to placate her, I’ll just use the word “stuff.”  Of course, I know what the real word is, and so does she, but some things are better left unsaid, or, in this case, unwritten.
My first introduction to SOS was during army basic training.  On one of those very early mornings in the company mess hall, partway up Fort Jackson’s Tank Hill, I remember going through the chow line and being served up, what appeared to me at the time, to be unrecognizable lumpy gravy slopped over toast.  The unfortunate soldier on KP duty, who was serving me the SOS, looked no happier than I looked being served it.  But looks can be deceiving, because after one bite, I fell in love, and have been in love with SOS ever since.

SOS is just another name for chipped beef on toast.  Like most prepared dishes, specific recipes differ depending on who is doing the cooking.  However, since so many people were first introduced to this culinary delight during the course of their military service, I think it is only appropriate that we look to the U.S. Army for guidance.  In the 1910 version of the Manual for Army Cooks, the ingredients for making creamy chipped beef were listed as being chipped beef, fat (butter preferred), flour, evaporated milk, parsley, pepper, and beef stock.  Those ingredients represented the “stuff” of SOS, and the toast represented the “shingle.”  Most modern chipped beef recipes eliminate both the beef broth and parsley, and substitute real milk for evaporated milk, but aside from those differences, the recipe has not really changed that much.
As noted earlier, I don’t make time for breakfast during the week, but I do get out occasionally on the weekends.  Breakfast places on Florida’s Gulf Coast, like around the rest of Florida, are plentiful, and they offer inexpensive menu items.  My problem with going out to eat breakfast is that eggs and breakfast seem to be synonymous in this country.  I don’t eat eggs, have never eaten eggs, and, in fact can’t stand the sight of them, especially if they're hard boiled or deviled.  Eggs, in my opinion, are simply not a desirable source of food.  Unfortunately, in most places, it’s hard to find a breakfast selection that doesn’t include a couple of eggs.  That's why I like the simplicity of SOS.  It’s just chipped beef on toast, and eggs have absolutely nothing to do with it in any way, shape, or form.

Luckily for me, there are a great number of breakfast places around which have SOS on the menu.  Making good SOS, like making a good grilled cheese sandwich, is difficult to screw up.  As a result, I am rarely disappointed.  The only place where I’ve had really bad SOS, was at an eatery in New Port Richey, Florida.  It was sweet, sickeningly sweet, and wasn’t worth finishing.  I’m quite sure that the cook had mistakenly added sugar instead of salt, because there is no other explanation.  No one, let alone a professional cook, would have intentionally desecrated SOS by adding sugar.  In any event, I’ve never been back there, and never will go back.

I’m always looking for new places serving SOS, and I get many referrals from people I know.  One such referral was to a place called The Broken Yolk Restaurant, in Holiday, Florida, which, I was told, had delicious SOS.  Now, given my aversion to eggs, I was immediately suspicious just based on the name alone.  I imagined a place filled with egg aficionados, trying to lure me inside with the promise of good chipped beef on toast so that they could convert me to their breakfast obsession of egg whites and yolks.  Despite my personal reservations about visiting the place, I reluctantly made my way to The Broken Yolk Restaurant, and I’m so glad I did.
The Broken Yolk, like so many of the breakfast restaurants in Florida, seems to be a social gathering spot for seniors.  It’s a place where the opportunity to meet and converse with friends is just as important as getting something to eat.  The restaurant is small, with no more than 15 tables, and it provides a cozy setting for a cup of morning coffee, a good breakfast, and friendly conversation.  Daily specials are written on whiteboards hanging on the walls, and a television mounted in a corner of the restaurant keeps everyone up to date with the latest news and weather.  On the day of my visit, however, I was not interested in conversation or watching the news.  I had come for one reason, and one reason only, SOS.

After quickly looking through the extensive menu, I selected the chipped beef on toast, and added a bowl of buttered grits and a cup of coffee to my order.  The service was both fast and friendly, and within just a couple of minutes, I was served my food.   My two pieces of toast were completely covered with piping hot, creamy gravy loaded with beef.  And, as a throwback to the old 1910 army recipe, it even had dried parsley sprinkled on top.  I knew, even before I tasted it, that I had hit the SOS jackpot, and it was sitting on a plate right in front of me.  It tasted even better than it looked, and my breakfast was enhanced by the bowl of grits, which were hot and buttery.

As reluctant as I was to come to The Broken Yolk in the first place, I was even more reluctant to leave.  I told the cashier on my way out that the chipped beef on toast was the “best I’ve ever eaten.”  And it truly was.  In a state where there are a thousand places to eat a good breakfast, I’ll definitely go back to enjoy the SOS at The Broken Yolk, because it’s just that good.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Hey Nineteen: My Rant About A Strange And Dangerous Highway

U.S.19 is an historic highway, which runs north and south, between Pennsylvania and Florida.  It is but one of the many old U.S. routes that carried automobile and truck traffic across state lines prior to the creation of the interstate highway system.  In Florida, the highway runs along the state’s western edge, and was once a main corridor for tourists heading into the “Sunshine State.”  Especially in the northern portions of the state, the highway is littered with abandoned motels, and the remnants of small and relatively unsophisticated tourist attractions which both time and traffic have long since passed by.  But if you’re coming down the highway from the north, and you’re the type of person who gets weepy when thinking about the “good old days” of the past, you better quickly wipe away those tears and get your head into the proper frame of mind before hitting the Pasco County line.

Highway 19, as it runs through Pasco and Pinellas Counties in Florida, can only be described as one wild, often bizarre, and dangerous ride.  Some locals refuse to even drive on this stretch of road.  Of those who do, they do so with caution.  Their caution is not unfounded, as this portion of highway 19 has been described as one of “the most dangerous roads in America.”   The extremely high death toll over the years is simply not acceptable, but, it is understandable.  The road, and the things that go on along its edges, can only be described as a circus.  Unfortunately, this “circus” not only delivers occasional humor, but also minor annoyances and frustration, and, all too often, injury and death.

Part of the problem with the highway is that from the Hernando/Pasco County line, on south through Pinellas County, both sides of the highway are nearly one continuous strip mall.  Every kind of business you can imagine is present.  Malls, hotels, RV parks, pharmacies, gas stations, restaurants, bars, tire dealers, used car lots, delicatessens and dollar stores, all compete with massage parlors, tattoo and body piercing studios, pawn shops, adult book stores, and supermarket size liquor warehouses.  And, there is an abundance of sign shops.  Quite frankly, the last thing Highway 19 needs are more sign shops producing even more signs which already distract too many drivers.

Vehicular traffic along the six lanes of the divided highway, is constantly slowing, stopping, and pulling in and out of the various businesses along the side of the road.   Hundreds of cross streets intersect with Highway 19, some with stop lights, and some without.  Right turn lanes veer off suddenly to the right, and U-turn lanes on the left appear without warning.  Sometimes the right turn lanes are strictly turn lanes, but sometimes they also allow traffic to go straight on through, inevitably resulting in a lot of rear end collisions.  If you think what I’ve just described is the major problem, it’s not.  The road and the environment around it are but a stage for the real problem.  People are the problem of course, but it’s not just the licensed drivers.  But, let’s start with them anyway.

It’s easy for the locals to blame the “snowbirds” for all the bad things which happen on Florida roads, and U.S. 19 is no exception.   To be fair to the locals, it is not uncommon to pull up behind a car with license plates from somewhere up north, going 20 miles per hour in the left lane.  Often the elderly driver and passenger cannot even be seen from the rear, as they are so small and frail, that they are completely hidden in their seats.  This causes many local drivers to honk loudly, as they swerve into the lane to the right, in an attempt to pass them.  And, as you might expect with these precipitous lane changes on a busy highway, accidents do frequently occur.

But most of the haphazard and dangerous lane changing I’ve witnessed has nothing to do with drivers attempting to negotiate around slow moving tourist vehicles.  Impatient Florida drivers, both young and old, are the real culprits.  Many local drivers on the highway consider the distance between one stop light, and the next stop light, a drag strip.  And, racing to the next light, while darting in and out of different lanes, really makes no sense.  Usually, if you are stopped at a stop light on U.S. 19, you will be stopped at the next one.  Like many places in the country, the stop light rule of “make one, make them all, miss one, miss them all” is in effect.  And, the vehicles involved in the improper lane changing and high speeds, like the owners who drive them, are diverse mix of the good, the bad, and the ugly.  BMW automobiles compete for dominance of the road with eleven foot high monster trucks and smoke belching junks.

As an aside, I don’t understand why so many of the Ford Tauras cars on this highway are missing bumpers?  I’m not sure it has anything to do with the highway itself,  but I’m just not ready to rule that out yet.  Perhaps we have our very own miniature “Bermuda Triangle” here on the west coast of Florida, which only strikes Tauras automobiles, and causes bumpers to disappear for no apparent reason.  It’s something I may want to ponder in the days ahead, but I suspect it’s just a case of bad driving.  And, there certainly is a lot of that on U.S. 19.

Before I stop commenting about the licensed drivers on U.S. 19, I have a few other things to mention.  Few things are more annoying than waiting in line at a short cycled left turn signal, and waiting for the “guy” or “gal” at the head of the line to turn once the light turns green.  Seconds seem like hours once the light changes, especially when there is no apparent movement from the front car. I can’t possibly imagine what takes some of these people so long to react once the light changes.  In some cases they’ve had 5 minutes to think about what to do once the light turns green, and they still can’t get it right.  I’m thinking about writing to the powers that be asking for a new law to be enacted which will only pertain to left turn signals on U.S. Highway 19 in the counties of Pasco and Pinellas in Florida.

My proposed law would require the removal of all existing green turn signals.  They would be replaced with what I believe is a much better system.   During the period the front vehicle is stopped waiting for the light to change, a camera would photograph the license plate, and immediately the car’s owner would be identified.  At the very second of the light change, blinking strobe lights would light up the intersection, followed with a quick blast of an ear-splitting siren.  Then, loudspeakers would blast an ultimatum to the owner of the front car, who had been identified by way of the license plate check a few seconds earlier.  I’ll leave it to the bureaucrats to come up with the exact language of the directive, but I’m thinking of something like, “WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR MR. JOHN H. SMITH, OF 1212 PENELOPE LANE, THOUSAND LAKES, FLORIDA?  TURN LEFT DAMMIT, AND DO IT NOW.”

Under this new law, there would be zero tolerance for offenders.  Any front vehicle which did not begin to move within 2 seconds of a light change would immediately bring forth the following additional information from the loudspeakers.  “ATTENTION ALL DRIVERS WAITING TO MAKE A LEFT TURN BEHIND THE DAWDLING AND INATTENTIVE MR. JOHN SMITH OF THOUSAND LAKES, FLORIDA.  APPARENTLY MR. SMITH IS SO SELF-CENTERED AND SELF-ABSORBED, THAT HE DOESN’T CARE ABOUT THE REST OF US.  PLEASE FEEL FREE TO CALL HIM AT HOME AND LET HIM KNOW WHAT YOU THINK OF HIS POOR DRIVING, AND RUDE AND INCONSIDERATE BEHAVIOR.  HE CAN BE REACHED AT THE FOLLOWING PHONE NUMBER.”  Perhaps I’ve taken this a little bit too far, as I have a habit of doing every once in a while, but I’m sure it would solve the problem in a hurry.  And, so, Mr. Smith, my imaginary friend, I’m sorry if I’ve embarrassed you, but somebody has to be first.
In my opinion, and in the opinion of many others, the most significant problems on Highway 19 are caused not by licensed drivers, but by pedestrians and others on the road or along the side of it.  I know most states now vigorously promote “sharing the road” with those on bicycles, but there should be limits.  One of the limits should be no bicycles.  A case in point was the time I was driving down the highway, and there, cycling down the center lane, was an elderly lady on a recumbent bike.  In her defense, she did have one small blinking red light on the back of her bike, and, she was wearing a helmet.  Words escape me about what to really say about this.  I fear, if she keeps getting her exercise in the center lane of U.S. Highway 19, she won’t be around much longer.  I’m sorry to have to put it this way, but what she really needs is less exercise and more time sitting with her psychiatrist discussing her death wish.

Unfortunately, she is not alone.  It is a very common occurrence to see bicycles on the highway, although, normally, I see them in the lane closest to the side of the road.  Occasionally, however, I see bicycles in active traffic lanes, going in the wrong direction.  But, the most ridiculous thing I've seen on the road was not a bicycle, but a motorized wheel chair.   There was this old guy with no legs, racing down the highway, and loving every minute of it.  As I passed him, he had a huge smile on his face.
Hitchhiking appears to still be a common practice along the road, and while this might have been acceptable behavior in the America of the 1920’s through the 1970’s, it seems a little outdated today.  It seems that almost anybody who claims to have a thumb in Pasco County, at some point in time, feels the need to get out on the road and try it out.  The ultimate destination for these people apparently does not seem to be that important.  I was parked in a mall parking lot one day near the edge of the highway, and was about ready to get in my car, when a man who had been hitchhiking came up and asked me if I could give him a ride to Spring Hill.  Now, I know where Spring Hill is, but he seemed confused, so I asked him which direction it was.  “Well,” he said, looking up and down the road, “it’s anywhere man, just get me the hell off this road.”  I guess it's needless to point out, but I declined giving him a ride to “anywhere.”

Hitchhiking may not be the best thing, but at least it’s usually done along the side of the road.  The really scary people are the ones who walk across the six lanes of Highway 19 completely away from any intersection and pedestrian lights.  And, unfortunately, these people are not world class sprinters.  But it wouldn’t matter anyway, because they often just walk across, completely oblivious to the moving traffic, or, anything else for that matter.   As often as not, they push a shopping cart, or, walk with a cane.
Competing for the attention of drivers along the busy highway are those who stand on the median strips at intersections and panhandle for change.  It’s not just the stereotypical guy with a beard, a dirty ball cap, holding a sign which says, “Homeless Vet Looking for Work…Please Help.”  There are also people hanging out with plastic pails, asking for donations to obscure causes, so obscure in fact, that I’ve never heard of any of them.  And I doubt anyone else has either.  Other people sell bottled water for a dollar in support of no particular cause, except their own, and the fact that they are very concerned that every driver on the road is extremely thirsty.

On Sunday mornings, the newspaper people come out in force.  Wearing their bright green colored shirts, they hawk their papers at every intersection for miles along Highway 19.  I didn’t realize so many people read newspapers anymore, but these bright green vendors seem to do a brisk business.  I suspect that what people are really buying are the Sunday coupons.  I was stopped at a light one Sunday morning, and one of the newspaper men came up to my window.  When I asked him how much he charged for a Sunday paper, he said, “A dollar, but most people also tip me a dollar.”  Hopefully, local restaurant servers and taxi drivers will not find out about this new trend of tipping at the rate of 100%.  Otherwise it’s going to be a little expensive to buy lunch anymore, or take a cab across town.

The real problem with the people doing their own particular brand of business on the median strip is that they don’t stay on it.  When the stop lights are red, they move their business out into the street, meandering among the lanes of stopped traffic, looking for anybody willing to part with a little money.  Then, when the lights turn green, they have to quickly dash back to the median to avoid being flattened by the oncoming traffic which has already started moving.

Of course, distracting the attention of drivers can be done from anywhere, not just along the median.  The shoulder of Highway 19 has its own cast of unusual characters demanding to be seen.  While not unique to this highway, as these characters are present along roadways from coast to coast, U.S 19’s population of them is quite large.  Dressed up as Lady Liberty, Uncle Sam, Clowns, Cowboys, and who knows what else, they stand by the side of the road holding big foam fingers, tall flags, gaudy signs and unrecognizable props supporting income tax preparation services, mobile phone services, and buyers of gold.  And, they’re always waving.  They wave at traffic, wave at pedestrians, wave at domestic animals, wave at insects, or, wave at nothing at all.  And the sad thing is, with the difficult economy, they are probably all paid a “nickel ninety-five” for doing so.  Just another circus side show act, I guess, being paid carnival wages.

U.S. 19 is all pervasive and all consuming.  There is absolutely no escape.  Pulling off the road never seems to get it completely done, as you’re never truly far enough away from 19 to break free.  One day, during the noon hour, I pulled off the highway to get something to eat.  I ate alone, but had a good lunch.  Unfortunately, I knew that my brief respite from the road was nearly over, and the highway was starting to seep back in, when the waitress wanted to know if I would like my check “separate or together.”  Huh?  What?